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Make 'em Laugh

With Funny Bones, Peter Chelsom dips into humor's dark side

Peter Chelsom, co-writer and director of the new film about comedy (as opposed to comedy film) Funny Bones, says his latest work is another of his "hometown movies," like Hear My Song. Chelsom's notion of hometown is like Ray Bradbury's: the hometown is suffused with magic, the sun shines every day and there is something wicked lurking in the corners -- some of the magic is malevolent.

Though Funny Bones begins in Las Vegas -- where nascent comedian Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) is desperately trying to follow in the footsteps of his famous father George (Jerry Lewis, in a role written for him) -- the hometown Chelsom talks of is Blackpool, England, where Tommy flees after flopping in Vegas and deciding to search for his comedic roots. It was in England that Tommy lived until he was six, and in England where his father got his start.

In Blackpool, known as the birthplace of English vaudeville, Tommy searches for the perfect act, hoping to find something he can buy and take back to the States. What he finds is the Parker brothers, "the funniest people Blackpool ever saw" and onetime associates of his father. What he also finds is a secret, one that causes father George to cross the Atlantic to deal with the past.

That's the setup, but what Funny Bones is actually about is the dark art of comedy. Funny Bones is about why we laugh at leering tramps in slap shoes and why comics take pratfalls and suffer abuse for laughs. Funny Bones is also about death: when Tommy bombs in Vegas, he's not a happy clown. He has this conviction: "I'm gonna die." Father George says "I'm gonna die," too. George also tells his son, as a pre-show pep-talk, "Kill the bastards." Death is ever present.

Indeed, one of the finest devices in Funny Bones is the Blackpool spook ride. Chelsom films the resort town of Black-pool in vivid, supersaturated circus colors, and every little detail he picks out is delightfully odd. Llamas wander the beach, accordions play and the Invisible Man has a comedy act. But the spook house is the center; the spook house is a thrilling ride -- more elaborate than any real-life house of horrors -- and we travel through it with a trainload of tourists more than once. This ride is a reminder that shrieks of delight and shrieks of fear are often the same -- and one jolly British tourist laughing on the ride finally becomes so excited she suffers a seizure. Real fun, in this Blackpool circus, isn't safe.

Real fun, real comedy, is also old-fashioned. Funny Bones does not have nice things to say about Las Vegas joke comics. Instead, Funny Bones celebrates music hall and variety show slapstick and pantomime humor. As the Parker brothers, comedy veterans Freddie Davies and George Carl do wonderful, 100-year-old vaudeville routines. Contemporary British standup comic Lee Evans as Jack Parker, a second-generation Parker comic, is brilliant in his first acting role. His Jack is a weird little lost boy with his own logic and a gift. He's got a cartoon-character face -- snub nose, freckles and impossible ears -- and despite the wonderful work from the rest of the cast, without him this movie might not have worked.

Tommy is the opposite of Jack: focused, analytical and not gifted. It's the first lead role Oliver Platt has been cast in, and he more than rises to the occasion. He's got an edge, and eyebrows that arch with cockiness and mischief. That note of mischief is what makes his character work -- a character who, at first blush, isn't particularly sympathetic. Platt manages to play a grasping, scheming neurotic in a likable way. He makes us care about his goofy quest to be like his father, and find a good act.

Tommy wants to learn about comedy. In the end, he does. And when that happens he's pushed to the edge. Comedy is not, as Steve Martin says, pretty. Comedy is beautiful and strange, and Funny Bones is about feeling safe only when you're taking risks, when you're in danger. Funny Bones is not just a film for people who are curious about what Jerry Lewis is up to these days. Though Lewis is good, his part is small (if pivotal). It's the rest of the cast, and director Chelsom, who make Funny Bones such a success. Funny Bones is not a laugh riot, it's a sincere comedy -- no punches are pulled and the comics don't flinch. It's also complex, sometimes sinister and odd.

The film's big finale comes on a sway pole, a prop police light pole far taller than the real thing and flexible. It's something Chelsom saw when he was nine, at the Tower Circus in Blackpool. "I saw this very funny and nasty drunk" he says, "looking for a light for his cigarette." The "drunk" climbed up a sway pole, like a monkey, and lit his cigarette from the gaslight up top. "I had a feeling then," Chelsom says, "I thought, well, I think that's what they call art." At the end of Funny Bones we see a white-faced pantomime artist swaying perilously over the crowd, almost falling to his death and grinning wildly. And we, too, see art.

Funny Bones.
Directed by Peter Chelsom. With Oliver Platt, Lee Evans and Jerry Lewis.
Rated R.
128 minutes.

 
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